Student politics

Shifting ground: Why the ABVP is losing students union elections at major universities

Its rivals are closing ranks and running campaigns around ‘constructive agendas’.

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is having a rough year. The student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh saw enormous growth in support after the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the central government in 2014, winning elections to student unions across states. This year, though, the Parishad has suffered big reverses.

The latest setback came on October 15. In the Allahabad University Students Union election, the Parishad took just one of the five posts, that of general secretary. Last year, it had won two. Most significantly, it lost the president’s post to Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha, student wing of the Samajwadi Party.

In September, the Parishad lost the posts of president and vice president in the Delhi University Students Union – which it had won in 2016 – to the Congress-backed National Students Union of India.

Since 2014, the right-wing group’s influence and vote share has grown even in the traditionally Left-dominated Jawaharlal Nehru University. In response, this year, the left-leaning groups Students Federation of India, All India Student’s Association and Democratic Students Federation formed an alliance, known as Left Unity, and comfortably won the students union election in September.

At Hyderabad Central University, the Parishad has lost all union elections since 2010. In 2016, it managed to take a seat on the university’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. This year, it lost even that.

In Rajasthan, the Parishad won more than 60% of all students union seats this year, according to its spokesperson Saket Bahuguna, and its members became presidents at Udaipur, Kota, Jaipur and Bikaner universities. However, on the most influential campus – Rajasthan University, Jaipur – the group managed a solitary post, down from three last year, and the presidentship went to an independent.

This pattern is repeated elsewhere. In Assam, for instance, the Parishad won in smaller institutions but lost the two union seats it had, out of 15, at the big one, Gauhati University.

Teaming up

The primary reason for the Parishad’s declining fortunes, particularly at major universities, has been other groups forming alliances and contesting elections together.

“Last year, ABVP won the president’s post in Allahabad because three-four Yadavs, from local groups and independent candidates, had contested and the votes were distributed,” said Chaudhary Chandan Singh, who is associated with Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha. The Yadavs, who are categorised among the Other Blackward Classes, form a politically influential community in Uttar Pradesh. This year they wised up: several groups agreed to have just one Yadav run for president. Their man, Awanish Yadav, won.

Now, Rajesh Yadav, a member of the Samajwadi Party’s Gorakhpur unit, plans to deploy the same strategy at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University. In 2016, law student Aman Yadav, contesting independently, had ended the Parishad’s decade-long hold on the president’s post. This year, Rajesh Yadav expects anger over the mass death of children in Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College and the police action on students protesting against it, to help keep the Parishad out.

“Students from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Muslim and Yadav communities form the anti-Yogi block here,” Rajesh Yadav said, referring to Chief Minister Adityanath of the BJP. “There are three lakh students who are angry at being told what to do and what to eat.”

The Parishad has unified competing groups elsewhere, too. At Hyderabad Central University, the right-wing group’s rising confidence prompted the Students Federation of India to join the regional groups, Dalit Students Union and Telangana Students Federation, in the Alliance for Social Justice. Last year, with the Ambedkar Students Association staying out of this alliance, their presidential candidate had defeated the Parishad’s by just 52 votes, said the Students Federation of India’s S Nelson. This year, the Ambedkarite group joined the alliance and their candidate, Sreerag P, won the presidentship by a margin of 170 votes.

“The growth of ABVP on campus was one of the factors [behind the alliance’s formation],” Nelson said. “But the growth of Hindutva outside was a bigger one.”

Similarly at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, leftist and Dalit groups contested together as the Students For Social Justice and won all union seats.

At the same time, the Parishad’s rivals have started running campaigns around what the National Students Union of India’s Ruchi Gupta described as “constructive agenda”. They are no longer discussing just the issues framed by the right-wing – nationalism, Hindutva, beef politics and such – although these remain part of the discourse. At Delhi University, National Students Union of India released its manifesto in August, a month before ballot numbers were decided. Alongside talk of hostels and transport, it focused on messages such as “take back DU” – an anti-Parishad and anti-RSS campaign – and “universities are for education, not indoctrination”.

Regional factor

At some universities, part of the reason for the Parishad’s retreat is simply that even in student politics in the states, regional groups and individual candidates have more influence.

“Here, even independent candidates are typically backed by some group and do well,” said Chaudhry Chandan Singh. “If a student contests as a group’s candidate, only that party’s supporters vote for them. But if they run independently, they stand to gain others’ votes as well.” This, in part, explains the large number of independents wresting posts from party-backed groups in state universities.

Gorakhpur’s Aman Yadav started as independent but was co-opted early into his tenure by Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha. Pawan Yadav won at the Rajasthan University as an independent but, as Saket Bahuguna said, he had been a member of the Parishad for years. So, he does not necessarily represent a different politics.

At Gauhati University, the bulk of the seats went to the All Assam Students Union.

In Delhi, however, independent candidates stand little chance because established organisations prefer fielding their own nominees, even if in alliance with other groups. At Jawaharlal Nehru University, for example, the national Left groups stunned by the Parishad winning a post in 2015, set aside their bickering temporarily to contest as Left Unity from 2016. By sharing seats, they consolidated the vote against the Parishad.

Not alarming

Still, losses for the Parishad at major universities are disappointing but not alarming. “Of course Rajasthan University is important for us, but there are universities outside too,” Bahuguna explained. “In Allahabad, a former karyakarta [or worker] came second in the president’s post. This points to organisational infighting as the biggest reason for loss. It does not show that the youth is turning away from us.” He also pointed out that his group recently took one of the two elected union seats at MS University in Baroda – the group’s first in four years.

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